Are Two Divisions Causing County Cricket A Problem?

Northamptonshire have struggled this season
Northamptonshire have endured a terrible season in Division One of the LV= County Championship, but is it indicative of a wider problem?
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The top flight woes of Northamptonshire and to a lesser extent the troubles of Derbyshire last year has ignited a debate surrounding the perceived gulf in quality between the two divisions of the County Championship.

Northants' season has been appalling and that they are winless in 12 barely scratches the surface of their misery. That run has encapsulated a staggering 10 defeats, of which the majority have been resounding: on six occasions they have been mauled by an innings.

Both Northants' batting and bowling returns make disconcerting viewing. With the blade on only three occasions have they exceeded 300 and in none of those instances have Northants surpassed 400, at the same time 59 per cent of the basement clubs' innings have been concluded for scores under 250 – nine times they been bundled out for below 200.

With the ball the situation is similarly depressing; in only one of their opening ten games did Northants not concede a score in excess of 400, the discrepancy coming on a minefield of a pitch against Lancashire.

An unfair comparison?

Sweeping comparisons with Derbyshire are arguably slightly wide of the mark, given Wayne Madsen’s side collected three victories and finished only 24 points shy of third bottom Nottinghamshire - in the process winning more games than their neighbours.

There are however similarities between the stories. Both were promoted in a comparable vein, with storming starts catching the rest cold as both won four of their opening six fixtures.

That momentum however had derailed substantially by the season’s conclusion, with Northants winning only one of their last 10 games while Derbyshire were only narrowly better with two successes from their final 10.

Focusing solely on Northants it is worth noting that in the year prior to their promotion, the Midlands county picked up the wooden spoon - offering further evidence as to why they were so ill-equipped to Division One life.

Purple Patches

Being hypercritical it could be suggested that both clubs were promoted off the back of purple patches, rather than being dominant through the entire campaign - that being said their achievements in making the top flight should not be devalued.  

The individual batting stats of those respective promotion campaigns also offered a hint to the toils that would follow. Neither Derbyshire nor Northants could offer batsmen passing the golden 1,000 run barrier. For Northants only David Sales and Stephen Peters scored more than 750 while aside from overseas duo Martin Guptill and Usman Khawaja no Derbyshire batsmen averaged higher than 40.

Madsen ensured Derbyshire maintained a crumb of batting respect in the top flight – only Gary Ballance scored more runs in 2013 – yet given their mediocre batting returns in gaining a place in the promised land it is unsurprising that the pair between them have lost 20 Division One fixtures over the past two years.

Arguably for Derbyshire it was this batting deficiency that cost them a second season mixing it with the competition’s best – had they been able to transform a number of their 10 defeats into draws their survival aspirations might have been realised.

Bad luck

In the case of Northants it is worth highlighting several external factors which heavily hindered what was already an arduous assignment. Trent Copeland spearheaded Northants’ promotion push with the ball but a prolonged period without international exposure meant frustratingly he was ineligible to return.

In Jackson Bird Northants believed they had identified a viable alternative, however with the new season imminent injury ruled him out and with it triggered an exasperating sequence of failed attempts to identify an alternative.

To add further salt to Northants’ bowling wounds David Willey - who alongside Copeland was their leading wicket-taker in 2013 - was ruled out of bowling for the bulk of the campaign prior to its commencement.

The problems didn’t stop with the ball either, with the bad luck extended onto Northants’ batsmen - Alex Wakely being the most notable of those to be struck down as a ruptured Achilles tendon meant he would miss the entire campaign.

Even at full strength the leap between divisions was going to substantial for a side of Northants’ merits, with their desperate close season making a turbulent start almost anticipated - unfortunately their confidence has been terminally derailed by persistent early beatings and with it left them on a seemingly irreversible downward spiral.

A cruel environment

The top flight can be a cruel environment where mistakes seldom go unpunished when compared with the second tier. The step up is especially daunting in relation to batting; in Division Two support bowlers often offer a release of pressure there is no such luxury in division one.

Inevitably such a substantial increase in class represents a shock to the system and as a result adaptation can take time - that all three of Derbyshire’s wins in 2013 arrived in the season’s final third and Northants’ last two performances have been their most encouraging emphasise that point.

Unfortunately the unforgiving nature of the top flight allows minimal time for that acclimatisation process, and as Derbyshire discovered the damage is often already by the time adaptation is completed.

It is undeniable that the examples of Derbyshire and Northants outline a gap between the two divisions, however the concept of two division was always created to generate such an effect. In additin, the latter of those examples signifies the gulf to be substantially wider than it actually is.

For less fancied sides such as Derbyshire, Northants and the soon to arrive Worcestershire, succeeding in Division One will always require performances at optimum level combined with several servings of good fortune - in the latter of those points Northants were dealt a truly rotten hand.

How big is the gap?

Nobody should be panicking quite yet that the gap is spiralling out of control, although undeniably there is a danger that the smaller counties could soon be left behind those deemed in the more fashionable category. 

Of the promoted sides over the last seven years that have negotiated Division One survival only Worcestershire - who averted the drop in 2011 - can be labelled as unfashionable and they went on to be comprehensively relegated the following season.

Northamptonshire represent the nightmare scenario for promoted sides, however their struggles should not cloud judgements.

Yes, there is a natural gap between the two tiers but as of yet the evidence is not coclusive enough in regards to certain promoted sides being unable to compete at the top level.

Should Worcestershire, however, suffer a similar plight next year, then the debate that English domestic cricket is growing elitist would grow substantially.

What is apparent though is that those counties at the lower end of the resources and stature spectrums face a more taxing assignment than ever before in regards to upsetting county cricket’s established order.     

What do you think? Is the gap growing? Do you follow a county which has struggled to compete in Division One? Leave us a comment below.

© Cricket World 2014